Jed Gillen is the former owner of Vegan Cats and the author of Obligate Carnivore: Cats, Dogs & What it Really Means to be Vegan. I bought his book for two reasons: to help an entry I was writing about vegans with vegan pets, and to laugh at veganism at its most extreme. A vegan who argues that we should raise our miniature carnivorous felines as herbivores? Obligate Carnivore would surely represent the fringe of the fringe.
But I was wrong. On both counts. Rather than help my entry about vegan pets, it made me rethink it entirely until I decided not to write it at all. And yes, the book did make me laugh, but not by taking veganism to higher heights of absurdity. Obligate Carnivore uses vegan cats merely as a jetée to write hilariously about veganism and life in general; it is legitimately (and intentionally) amusing.
Far from being the fringe of the fringe, Gillen is veganism at its best. His ultra-logical and humorous take on animal-product-free living gave me the first and probably only sustained nostalgia I’ve had for veganism since quitting two years ago. It wasn’t enough to make me vegan again — I can’t imagine anything outside of convoluted hypotheticals that would accomplish that — but Obligate Carnivore reminded me why I had been vegan in the first place.
I liked Gillen’s writing so much, I took the next step and Googled him. Through Gillen’s Facebook profile, I learned he was no longer in the vegan cat food business, and was now making short funny videos through his company Liv Films. I emailed Gillen, told him about this site and asked if he would agree to be interviewed.
It shouldn’t be too hard to figure out by now that he agreed.
Most vegan books are grim, somber and dull. That is not the case with Obligate Carnivore. Your own work aside, do you find veganism to be an ultra-serious movement?
Jed Gillen: Definitely, but this is true of any social movement. It’s not like feminists or pro-lifers are a bundle of laughs either. I think this has more to do with the activist mindset than veganism specifically. To some extent, I think it’s just that activists feel very strongly about their chosen cause and think that humor would dilute their message (incidentally, they are 100% wrong about this). I also believe that, just as pedophiles are drawn to the priesthood, many people are drawn to activism as an outlet for unrelated psychological issues. The fringes of every movement, both on the left and on the right, could all probably benefit from some group counseling.
You blend humor and veganism quite well in your books, but your comedic videos don’t delve into animal issues. Have you heard from vegan fans who wish you’d integrate animal rights into some of your videos?
Yeah, we’ve been approached a few times about making videos with a pro-animal message but that’s not really something I’m interested in doing. We make videos for fun and people watch them to be entertained; if suddenly we were preaching about seal clubbing or whatever, both of these conditions would be violated.
The activist mindset is that 24 hours a day is supposed to be spent “raising awareness” and “educating” people about all of the things they’re doing wrong, but I just don’t see that as a very productive or enjoyable way to spend one’s life. Anyway, it’s not that we actively hide the fact that we’re vegan; when it’s relevant, we mention it. It just doesn’t happen to be relevant all that often.
I was intrigued to see on your bio that you are a libertarian. Libertarian-vegan is an unusual combination, even though both philosophies are extremely concerned with rights. Why does veganism attract liberals more than any other political group?
Ultra-liberalism is almost a sort of mental disorder; it’s the hatred of all things that are strong and successful. I think there’s a part in my book about a conversation I had with some liberals who argued that Pamela Anderson (this was a long time ago, okay?) is ugly due to the fact that over 50% of the population finds her beautiful, but that she would become beautiful if standards were to change and only 49.9% found her attractive. It’s insanity. Up is down, ugly is beautiful, and the only way you can win is by losing. Insofar as animals constitute a weaker group being exploited by a stronger, it only makes sense that liberals would be attracted to their cause.
That having been said, not all vegans are ultra-liberal and I actually know several who are libertarian or conservative-leaning. It’s just the wacky liberals who tend to make the most noise and kind of make the rest of us look bad by association.
Do you get any satisfaction from out-liberaling omnivorous liberals when it comes to animal rights?
No. Trying to out-liberal other people is a stupid game. It is, however, exactly the kind of thing that would have given me, age 17, a lot of pleasure.
You’re also an atheist, which (unlike libertarianism) almost seems to be the default in veganism. Why does veganism attract the non-religious? Does veganism function as a substitute religion?
Sure, there are definitely some people who make vegan activism the central purpose of their lives, much in the way that other people center their lives around religion, career or family instead. On the other hand, veganism is often associated with new age-y spiritualism, Buddhism, 7th Day Adventism and other such nonsense as well. I’d like to be able to answer that vegans are less likely to be religious because they aren’t as weak-minded and illogical as everybody else, but I’m not really sure how often that’s the case.
However, I would definitely say that it’s easier to avoid taking personal responsibility for things when you believe that there’s an invisible man in the sky who takes care of things for you; maybe that’s part of the reason for the pattern you observe.
Yet if there is no invisible man in the sky taking care of things for us, then he’s also not there to make rules or judge us. And since society isn’t telling us not to eat animals, why be more moral than we have to be?
All systems of morality are based on the same principle— what Kant called the categorical imperative and Christians call the golden rule. Essentially, this is rooted in empathy, which is probably hard-wired into us as a result of having evolved as a social animal. It’s unnatural for us not to care about each other, which is why nihilism is something that we talk about in philosophy class but isn’t really practiced by anybody. The rare people who actually are able to care only about their own selfish self-interest (i.e., sociopaths) are considered to have a mental illness.
The only flexibility we have here is in defining what we mean by “each other”— in other words, who is included in the group for which we have empathy and who isn’t. Different human societies throughout history have defined this in different ways, sometimes drawing the line between different racial groups, sometimes including men and excluding women, etc. There’s nothing written in the universe that says that any one of these lines is any more inherently correct than any other but it’s pretty clear that the more advanced societies tend to draw the widest circles.
If there is nothing inherently wrong with eating animals, would it be fair to say then that the main purpose of veganism is guilt abatement?
I’m answering this question about three days after the big earthquake in Haiti. Right now, there’s an outpouring of sympathy for the victims down there and many people are donating money, etc. to try to help out. Is their motivation guilt abatement?
I understand the philosophical argument that everything is ultimately motivated by selfishness; I’ll simply point out that it would be disingenuous to apply it to veganism but not to the present situation in Haiti. Whether you want to call it selflessness or selfish guilt abatement, everyone in both situations is motivated by the same underlying feeling.
But wouldn’t you be better off if you could fool yourself into feeling as ethically good while eating meat as you do now for being vegan?
In other words, do I agree with the statement “ignorance is bliss”? Sure, but I think that only works if you’re actually ignorant. The world is full of people who are trying desperately to convince themselves that everything in their life is the way they want it to be (people stuck in bad relationships, fat people dealing with self-esteem issues, etc.); ultimately, I really don’t think that lying to yourself is exactly the recipe for happiness.
Vegan origination stories often play as a loss of this blissful ignorance. In your own case, you were eating a chicken sandwich and then you realized you were eating what used to be a living animal. As you point out in the book, you had known this all along, but suddenly something clicked. That is the experience that many vegetarians and vegans have; Jonathan Safran Foer mentions a similar one in Eating Animals.
But after years of veganism, I had a different click: no matter what I did or didn’t do, these animals that I thought I was saving were going to die. Wasn’t I just restricting myself all this time for nothing? No vegan believes that the animals that they aren’t eating are released into the wild, or that animals that aren’t killed for meat will live forever. But what then is the actual concrete accomplishment of veganism?
Right— there are no actual, living animals whose lives are saved or improved through veganism; the only effect is that a decreased demand for meat causes fewer food animals to be born in the first place. If the whole world went vegan, there wouldn’t be billions of happy cows in the world; there would just be many, many fewer cows.
Does this mean that veganism accomplishes nothing, though? Is bringing animals into the world in order to torture and slaughter them morally equivalent to not bringing them into the world at all? Then why don’t we breed human babies for food as well? I hear they’re delicious.
What if you die and then find out that all along, life was just an advanced computer simulation? Are you going to kick yourself for avoiding animal products?
No. I eat better as a vegan than I ever did as a meat-eater anyway. Constraints force creativity.
That is one advantage of veganism — you’re all but required to learn to cook and discover new foods. Along these lines, a lot of vegans say that veganism is not a sacrifice. Partially I think they say this to encourage more people to join, but I also think most vegans come to believe this. I did. Once you are conditioned against animal products, it can seem like you’ve given nothing up. Is that how you feel? Is veganism not a sacrifice?
On a day to day basis, I do think that I eat better than most people and part of the reason for that is that veganism has forced me to try things that I might not have otherwise. However, there are definitely certain circumstances in which it feels like a sacrifice.
For example, I went to college in New Orleans and it was a bit disappointing not to be able to try very much of the famous local cuisine. To me, personally, it wasn’t enough of a sacrifice to make an exception (crawfish, to me, are a little bit like dog meat or monkey brains probably are to most Americans— on the one hand, I sort of wanted to sample the local flavors but, on the other hand, eww— dog meat and monkey brains), but I always tell other people that in situations like that it’s okay to make an exception without throwing veganism out the window altogether. If you can’t stand the idea of going to the ballpark and not eating a hot dog then, by all means, get a hot dog at the ballpark. How does that have any bearing on what you choose to eat when you’re not at the game?
For most vegans, it seems to be the opposite problem — a self-ingrained repulsion to eating even the slightest amount of any animal product ever. They would rather throw out something with just a trace of animal products than eat it, even if throwing it out does nothing for the environment or animals. Why does personal purity become so important for vegans? Do you find yourself repulsed at the thought of eating something with a droplet of whey in it?
I am not repulsed by that. As I argue in my book, animals are affected by our spending decisions, not our eating decisions. It’s ironic that many vegans will throw away their old leather shoes, but continue to buy meat-based cat and dog food, when only the latter of these two actually has a negative impact on animals. Sometimes you’ll hear vegans talk about the vague concept of “sending a message”— as in “if you continue to wear your old leather shoes, that sends the message that it’s okay to buy new leather shoes.”
Um, no it doesn’t. First of all, who the hell is basing their personal morality upon messages received from my feet? And second, the message— if any— is that veganism is a comprehensible philosophy: if something needlessly hurts animals, I try to avoid doing it. I’m not trying to win a contest by depriving myself of the most things possible or by having the fewest molecules of animal-derived products enter my own body or touch my own skin. As I said before, trying to out-liberal, out-vegan, out-whatever each other is a stupid game.
I’ve known plenty of vegans and vegetarians in my life, but very few people who still eat meat as long as it isn’t factory farmed, even though that is less of a sacrifice. That does seem to be changing, but any idea why this all or nothing approach is so common?
Well, there’s been a proliferation of free range, organic animal products on the market in recent years so I guess somebody’s buying them. But I do agree that there’s a problem when we think of things as a dichotomy (vegan/non-vegan) instead of falling somewhere along a continuum.
When a person mentions, for example, that they don’t eat any meat except for fish, the inclination of vegan activists is to try to educate them on why eating fish is bad. That’s a mistake. Here’s a person who is 95% in alignment with your point of view, and all you can do is criticize them for the remaining 5%? I’ve actually witnessed a conversation in which a vegan activist attacked a person for saying that the only meat they eat is once a year on Thanksgiving, which is just ridiculous. How about giving them some credit for the other 364 days?
We need to realize that every incremental change is just as important as any other. Someone who eats meat 20 times per week benefits animals just as much by cutting down to 10 times per week as someone who eats meat 10 times per week does by becoming vegan. So why don’t they get the same amount of credit?
How do vegans feel about ex-vegans?
You mean apostates? They pretty much hate them. The logic is that, whereas everyone else might yet become vegan if properly educated, ex-vegans are just bad people. For what it’s worth, it’s my understanding that Jehovah’s Witnesses operate in much the same way.
In Obligate Carnivore, you say that when you became vegetarian, you thought you were doing harm to yourself. That’s what I thought too – I only cared about animal rights initially and I didn’t even know about the health angle. But now it’s become one of the unquestioned pillars of veganism: veganism is good for animals, for the environment, as well as for health. This makes veganism basically an invincible argument – there is no good reason not to be one. But is veganism actually healthier? Is it good for vegans to try to convince people to join for these supposed health benefits when not everyone does feel better on a vegan diet?
A vegan diet consisting of whole grains, fresh vegetables, etc. is one of the healthiest diets possible, and this is backed up by statistics on cancer and heart disease rates, etc. But that’s not to say that everyone who becomes vegan is automatically healthier than everyone else. Technically, a diet consisting of potato chips, pickles and root beer is vegan. That’s not better for you than brown rice and fish. It’s possible to be very healthy on a vegan diet, but it’s also possible to be very unhealthy; and the same thing is true of a diet that includes meat.
You post a lot of photos of vegans who look scrawny, weak and unhealthy and the obvious counter to that would be a similar collection of fat ass meat-eater photos. But I do agree that it’s kind of ironic that the stereotypical vegan is so scrawny and weak, given how many of them make the argument that it’s inherently so much healthier. I’ve always said that the best thing a vegan guy can do for the cause is to avoid looking like a skinny weakling. If all else fails, I highly endorse beer as way of accomplishing this.
Vegans pose veganism as an easy choice: a healthy diet with an ethics bonus vs. omnivorism, a probably unhealthy diet with negative points for morality. But what if it became obvious that humans need a certain amount of animal product to fully thrive in the long term? The choice would then be: a diet that covers you morally but not really physically vs. a diet that covers you physically but not morally. Would you be able to advocate a vegan diet if it were ethically good but physically bad?
I would never begrudge someone doing what they believe to be the healthiest for themselves. A lot of people think that a macrobiotic diet (which is essentially vegan with the addition of fish) is the best of all possible diets and I really can’t argue with someone who chooses to follow it for that reason.
That having been said, how many people do you encounter on a daily basis that actually eat the way they believe to be the very healthiest? The obesity rate in this county is something like 60%, and even if “a certain amount of animal product” were necessary to maximize health, that doesn’t really give you a free pass to eat all the chicken wings and ice cream you want. Most people who stuff their faces full of animal products because of a purported belief that it makes them healthy are kind of full of shit.
Since you’re libertarian, I wonder if you’re familiar with the economist Frederic Bastiat’s essay, “That Which is Seen and That Which is Not Seen”. In it he says that government only has an eye for the blatantly visible, but is blind to unintended consequences. For instance, the government might think that by making drugs illegal, they solve the drug problem. But what is “not seen” is that this creates an underground drug trade that leads to more violence and destruction than the drugs themselves do.
I thought about this while reading The Vegetarian Myth, an anti-vegan book which argues that though vegans think they are avoiding violence by eating rice and beans instead of flesh, they are blind to the unseen violence of agriculture, which destroys animal habitats to pave the way for monocrops (the land is destroyed, rivers full of fish are dammed to irrigate the crops, etc.). Also, there are those creatures killed by harvesting.
I know that factory farmed animals are fed grains anyway so omnivores are responsible for this agricultural destruction too. But it’s arguable that in certain cases, like hunting wild animals or eating grass-fed beef, it might be possible to cause less death and destruction by eating meat than by eating tofu. Is it possible then that vegans see the obvious (rice on their plate instead of flesh) but are overlooking a pretty major unseen?
You bring up a couple of great points here. Whereas animal agriculture is much more destructive environmentally (uses more land, wastes more water, creates additional sources of pollution, etc. etc.), it’s not that a vegan diet has zero impact. Wild animals are displaced from their homes whether a field is planted with corn for human consumption or for animal feed; again, fewer animals would be displaced if we ate the corn ourselves (it takes something like 8 or 9 pounds of corn to make a pound of beef, I believe), but even the organic garden in your backyard causes some small amount of animal displacement.
If I find it annoying that many vegans present themselves as if they are completely perfect while everyone else is evil, cruel and stupid, then how much more annoying must non-vegans find it? The reality is that we all take up resources and place a strain on the earth in one way or another, and there are ways that any one of us could improve. If everyone were to go vegan, all kinds of environmental issues would improve immensely, yet the same thing is true of driving cars and how many vegans still justify doing that?
It’s a good idea for all of us to look at the effects our choices make and see what areas we can improve. Diet happens to be a big one for a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean that vegans have everything all figured out and everyone else is terrible.
I also want to touch briefly on your point about hunting. One of the most universally reviled individuals among the vegan community is Ted Nugent, and I really think that’s a mistake. Whereas the guy is an unabashed bow hunter, etc., he’s against factory farming and (for the reasons you mentioned above) probably one of the lowest impact guys around.
I hesitate to say that we should look at Ted Nugent as an ally but, if the goal is to reduce animal suffering and death, we need to at least realize that he’s far from the worst enemy we’ve got. I understand that, in a visceral sense, someone who kills animals with their own hands seems more cruel but, in terms of actual animal suffering, he’s responsible for less than almost anyone. A lot of people consider themselves to be animal lovers and find hunting barbaric, and yet still eat meat. As vegans, I think we’d be better served pointing out the flaw in that way of thinking instead of reinforcing it.
Will you be vegan for the rest of your life?
I can’t see any reason why I wouldn’t.
I know it was a long time ago, but do you miss anything about not being a vegan?
Stretchy pizza cheese. They still haven’t come up with a decent alternative to that.